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This Week at Amtrak; 2011-11-30

November 30th, 2011

Volume 8, Number 20

From the Editors…

The President of the United States laid down the challenge, and we at This Week will attempt to answer the question, Where would we be without the national highway network?

Editors: D & D Carleton                                   Proofreading: Black Bear Wordsmiths (blackbearws@yahoo.com)

 Do not ask the question if you cannot live with the answer

“Ask yourselves — where would we be right now if the people who sat here before us decided not to build our highways…?” – President Barack Obama, address to the U.S. Congress, September 8, 2011

In 1806, just 18 years after ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the Cumberland Road was authorized by President Thomas Jefferson. Construction would begin in 1811 and the full route from Cumberland, Maryland to Wheeling, Virginia would be completed by 1818. This thoroughfare served as a bridge between the Ohio and Potomac Rivers, to secure the flow of goods and people to a growing nation.

Unfortunately, even in those early days, the U.S. Congress did not know when to leave well enough alone. In 1820, Congress authorized an extension westward. Now known as the National Road, it was to run from Cumberland to St. Louis, Missouri. In 1825, Congress authorized the road beyond the Mississippi River into Missouri. The road would not even reach St. Louis. The last appropriation from Congress was made in 1838, construction stopped in 1839, and in 1840 Congress voted against completing it. By this time the road had been turned over to the individual states through which it ran.

The National Road was an early attempt at internal improvement for this young nation. The idea was simple: Build a thoroughfare to promote commerce and thereby grow the nation. Waterways were the main avenues of travel, and where they were not extant, the animal-drawn cart or wagon would have to suffice. But in the middle of the (first) Congressional road building frenzy, the world of overland transportation was revolutionized. In 1825, as Congress was setting its sights on Missouri, the first steam-powered railroad was being built in England. It would not take long for this technology to jump across the ocean to aid a growing nation. By the beginning of civil hostilities in 1861, there were over 30,000 miles of track across the divided nation.

Railroads would bring road building to a temporary halt. It has been said the National Road was both obsolete and premature; the railroads rendered roads with animal-drawn vehicles obsolete; and the mechanized road vehicle would do the same to the railroads. It is the common consensus that railroads are a 19th Century relic. Such is the result of not teaching basic physics to our young.

W=f x d

In physics, the definition of “work” is “force times distance” or W=f x d. This has been true on Planet Earth since day one. Force is defined as “mass times acceleration” (F=ma). For the purpose of this discussion, “force” is the degree of mechanical exertion exercised on an object for movement and the resistance (friction) to such movement. In the days of animal power, mechanical exertion was increased by breeding larger beasts of burden and/or working them in tandem. Resistance was decreased by designing the wheels of the cart or wagon as narrow as feasible where they contacted the riding surface, and smoothing the riding surface (Roman roads, 500 B.C.) to reduce friction. The apex of the animal-drawn load was the tramway, a fixed guideway of a flanged iron wheel riding on an iron rail or strap. Drastically decreased friction of the riding surface dramatically increased the potential load for a given beast of burden. The next step was easy: Mate James Watt’s steam engine to the tramway, and … the steam locomotive was born.

As the industrial revolution continued, technology improved in all aspects, especially metallurgy. It was not long before steel replaced iron for rails, as well as wheels, and just about every other aspect of the railroad. But by the early 20th Century, the strength and machining of steel improved to the point of making the internal combustion engine an economic reality. The Otto and Diesel cycles were established late in the 19th Century but would have to wait until the technology improved to make them viable. Moreover, the fledgling petroleum industry was making inroads into the home, supplying oil for heat and gas for lights. As part of the refinement process, however, they had a leftover waste product for which there was no market. This distillate we know today as gasoline became the primary fuel for the internal combustion engines that would power automobiles and early airplanes. The oil companies were more than happy to sell this stuff cheaper than drinking water. In 1908 Henry Ford’s Model T automobile made driving an option for all Americans. There was just one problem: No roads.

The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1916 provided millions in Federal monies in 50-50 matching funds to the States. By 1917, every state had a Highway Agency to administer the Federal funds. In the economic boom that was the 1920s, sales of affordable automobiles were brisk; 10 million registered by 1920, to over 26 million by 1930. The Good Roads Movement instigated by bicycle enthusiasts toward the end of the 19th Century was now taken up by automobile owners. Many Americans were inspired by the National Park-to-Park Highway after a publicity stunt in 1920, wherein a dozen motorists spent 76 days traveling 5000 miles visiting the then 12 National Parks. It was the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921 that defined an immense national highway system. The Auto Trails of the early century gave way to numbered national highways. Initially 50,100 miles were recommended for the new network. In 1925 the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Public Roads approved the new U.S. Highway system with 75,800 miles planned, 2.6 % of the total certified public road mileage of the day.

The Great Depression of the 1930s slowed but did not dampen the national enthusiasm for roads. Automobile ownership increased during the decade, with 27.5 million registered by 1940. In some places, road building was seen as an ideal public works project to spur economic recovery. The building of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, a toll road, was signed into law in 1937. The New Jersey Turnpike, another toll road, was first planned in 1938. World War II, the war of machines, completed the mechanical familiarization of the American male. When the boys came home they wanted cars; and the domestic production plants, shifting from wartime to peacetime, were ready to build them. To the soldiers coming home, nothing more personified the freedoms they had defended than the freedom of the open road. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 authorized the construction of 41,000 miles of the Interstate Highway System, the largest public works project in American history.

Physics is still physics

For many, the national highway/roadway network is seen as technology triumphant; however the laws of physics, especially the equation of work-equals-force-times-distance, did not change. It is true that the compact internal combustion engine made possible the conversion of liquid or gaseous fuels into mechanical energy which increased the amount of force available to do work. But so did the external combustion engine such as the steam locomotive. This increase of mechanical exertion, over what had been available with animals, moved transportation out of the exclusive purview of large companies and into the realm of the individual. What made the internal combustion engine practical for general use was (1) the exceptionally low price-per-volume of the fuel, and (2) the density of energy in the fuel. One standard 42-gallon barrel of oil yields the equivalent of 25,000 man-hours of work. This is the equivalent of a workforce of 12 people working 40 hours a week for one year. Compare the market price of one barrel of oil to the payroll of a dozen people for one year, and the energy density of that barrel of oil becomes evident.

Through it all, the American railroads suffered. From the short-sighted Federal takeover during World War I, their subsequent release, over-regulation, the doldrums of the Great Depression, the crush of World War II, their wholesale rejection by the public after the war, deregulation; the railroads adapted and survived. The railroads would embrace internal combustion after the war, adopt mechanization for track maintenance, and ultimately surrender the passenger train to the same socialized ideals that built the highways that carried away the passengers. But they have survived. Why? Because the laws of physics favor railroads. Whereas highways may seem technologically advanced simply by reason of the car being newer than the iron horse, the train is still more efficient. A metal wheel on a metal rail has less resistance (friction) than a rubber tire on asphalt.

Moreover, the railroads are private property, and fund their own maintenance and upkeep; not so the highways, which are reliant on the public surplus. The Federal Highway Trust fund, which is fed by the Federal Gasoline Tax, nearly became insolvent two years ago. Of the $48.1 billion for transportation provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, over half ($27.5 billion) went to highway and bridge construction projects. The Gas Tax, 18.4 cents per gallon, has not been increased since 1993. Any politico wishing to remain employed does not dare raise the tax to a level which may sustain the highway network. Some politicians who are ignorant of how the system works and/or wish to curry favor with their constituents have even suggested abolishing the tax. The tax’s receipt directly correlates to the amount of gas sold, which peaked in 2007 at 143 billion gallons. The level of gas sold in this country has risen slightly off its lows of 2008-09, but the miles of road to be maintained have remained the same. This is no way to run a railroad, thank goodness.

Gasoline is not just a Federal problem. As America moved forward after the war, the construct of daily life was calibrated, perhaps unconsciously, at the costs of the day. As an example, a gallon of gas in 1950 averaged 27 cents. Since then, so long as the price of gasoline remained at 27 cents per gallon corrected for inflation, then the economy hummed right along; 27 cents in 1950 is $2.54 in today’s dollars. In 2006, the price of gas exceeded the price of inflation for the first time since 1984. For the week ending September 16, 2011, national demand for gasoline was 8.858 million barrels per day; the national average cost was $3.601 per gallon. The average daily cost to the consumer for gasoline is $1.339 billion. If today’s gasoline were still in line with the cost of inflation starting in 1950, then the daily cost to the consumer for gasoline would be $945 million. Everyday Americans spend $394 million more for fuel than the cost of inflation. That’s $394 million that, every day, does not go to the purchasing of food or clothes or medicine or just plain “stuff” that keeps the economy moving. Gasoline, it seems, is no longer the unloved byproduct of the refining process.

At the local level, the States are also facing the challenge of funding road repair and improvement. To put all this is perspective, the Union Pacific Railroad’s infrastructure comprises over 26,000 miles of track, bridges, and tunnels. The BNSF Railway is over 24,000 miles. Yet there are four states — California, Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania — that spend more on road projects than U.P. or BNSF Railway spend on track and infrastructure work. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is seeking to long-term lease its turnpike following the precedents Illinois, Indiana, Texas and Virginia. Plans to institute tolls on Interstate 80 were retracted. A deal to lease the turnpike to a Spanish-American consortium for $12.8 billion awaits approval by the legislature. Ah yes, and to think, selling the Brooklyn Bridge was once considered a joke.

So where would we be if the highways had not been built? To say that the highways should never have been built would be short-sighted. But the belief that highways are the final solution to all our overland transportation needs (as espoused in Disney’s television film Magic Highway, U.S.A., 1958) is no longer realistic. The Federal overreach of the early 19th Century was repeated in the middle of the 20th Century. The notion that the open (that is Federally subsidized) road is essential for “the pursuit of happiness” is no more appropriate than a wall telephone in your kitchen being essential to your family’s well-being. The pursuit of happiness has never been contingent on overt Federal empowerment.

What is missing, what has always been missing, is empirical balance. It is this balance which is slowly being restored:

 “If you think about the pressure a lot of states and local communities have today – they fund many of the programs, the highway infrastructure -it’s hard to see where states are going to be able to not only accelerate spending on highways but maintain where it is today. We think railroads can be a part of that solution.” – Union Pacific Railroad Chairman and CEO Jim Young

 Today, of all intermodal traffic moving over 500 miles, over 30% moves by rail. The goal is to increase this to 50%. Across the country, railroad traffic lanes are being expanded through the investment of private and sometimes public funds. Even though public monies may be used, the resultant traffic will pay for future capital maintenance; there is no regular or return trip to the public trough. The railroads are poised to reclaim their place as the preeminent provider of transportation, both passenger and freight, moving volumes unheard of during the previous Golden Age.

Gasoline, the once-unloved petroleum distillate is now in demand worldwide. As former second- and third-world countries build American-like highways, the demand for fuel builds with them. The price for this fuel is dictated by the laws of supply and demand. As such, we will never see the price return to the low levels we enjoyed for a half-century in this country. We adapted to cheap fuel, we will adapt and are adapting to life with incrementally more expensive energy. Fuel use is down, as are car-miles. Home prices are rising in some places, but not unilaterally. This is where the “distance” part of the equation, W=f x d, comes into play. These are but some of the adjustments we find ourselves undertaking in this new era. Fewer miles driven may be perceived as less freedom, which may also be perceived by some as oppressive. Already there are those of a conspiracist bent who see their cheap fuel disappearing as a result of government or corporate malfeasance. Who ever thought oppression would come at the price of a gallon of gas?

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